Legal Arguments Begin in Case Challenging EPA’s Decision to Authorize Medically Important Antibiotic as Citrus Pesticide

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SAN FRANCISCO (January 18, 2023) – On January 23, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral argument challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of the medically-important antibiotic streptomycin as a pesticide on citrus crops. The lawsuit, brought by farmworker and public-interest groups, argues the use of streptomycin on citrus crops is unlawful under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act and the Endangered Species Act. 

Streptomycin is used to treat serious illnesses ranging from tuberculosis to urinary tract infections. The misuse of medically important antibiotics has contributed to increased antibiotic resistance in bacteria–a pressing public health crisis causing over 35,000 deaths each year in the United States. The widespread uses of streptomycin can also cause harmful, long-term effects on endangered species like Florida panthers and San Joaquin kit foxes, who use habitat in and around treated fields, as well as bee and butterfly pollinators who are already suffering serious declines.

Despite evidence showing spraying streptomycin on citrus trees to combat citrus greening disease is highly ineffective, more than 650,000 pounds of the antibiotic are expected to be used on citrus crops in Florida and California alone. By contrast, the U.S. currently uses about 14,000 pounds of aminoglycosides, the antibiotic class that includes streptomycin, for medical purposes annually.

Petitioners in the case include NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and U.S. PIRG, represented by NRDC; Beyond Pesticides, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida (ECOSWF), Farmworker Association of Florida, Farmworker Justice, and Migrant Clinicians Network, represented by Earthjustice; and the Center for Biological Diversity, represented by in-house counsel.

The following are statements from co-petitioners in the case:

“The use of streptomycin as a pesticide continues to be an ongoing threat to the health and safety of our farmworkers, who are at the frontlines of feeding our nation. We’re urging swift resolution of this case and an end to the misuse of medically important antibiotics within our food systems. Every day of delay means more farmworkers are exposed, putting themselves and their families at risk.” – Jeannie Economos, Coordinator, Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Program, Farmworker Association of Florida 

“Medically important antibiotics should be reserved for a doctor’s toolkit, not agricultural fields. Misuse and overuse of these precious medicines are known to exacerbate the growing health threat posed by antibiotic-resistant infections. There are safer alternatives for addressing pest pressures in food production–including organic farming–that don’t sacrifice our health or the planet’s.” – Allison Johnson, Senior Attorney, Health & Food, NRDC

“We hope the 9th Circuit acts quickly to protect farmworkers and endangered wildlife by stopping EPA’s egregious misuse of this medically-crucial antibiotic. Continuing to risk the ability of this critical drug to stop people from dying, just to use it as an ineffective, stop-gap measure against citrus greening, is dangerous and short-sighted.” – Hannah Connor, Attorney, Center for Biological Diversity

“Imagine living in a world where common infections once again kill. That’s the reality we face without swift action to stop antibiotic overuse in any setting. Spraying a medically important antibiotic on citrus crops is an absurd use of our life-saving medicines that we can’t afford to ignore.” – Matthew Wellington, Public Health Campaigns Director, PIRG. 

“In a pandemic era and an age of antibiotic overuse, we cannot afford to risk further public health crises from antibiotic resistance. The use of streptomycin as a pesticide needlessly and dangerously exposes farmworkers, communities, and the environment to an increased, unacceptable, and unlawful risk of harm, and should immediately cease.” –  Carrie Apfel, Senior Attorney, Sustainable Food and Farming Program, Earthjustice

Additional Resources: 

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NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC. 

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, is an advocate for the public interest. We speak out for a healthier, safer world in which we’re freer to pursue our own individual well-being and the common good.

Established in 1983, the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF) is a statewide, grassroots, community-based, non-profit, farmworker membership organization with over 10,000 Haitian, Hispanic, and African American members and five offices in the state of Florida, working for social and environmental justice with farmworkers.

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit public interest environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change.

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